Plague Medicine: Reading Avocado Ibuprofen in a Pandemic

Courtesy Jaakko Pallasvuo.

Over the last several years, Jaakko Pallasvuo’s Instagram comics (produced under the handle @avocado_ibuprofen) have become a minor phenomenon. Beloved among art world participants, comics fans, and Instagram users of all stripes, readers see their experiences reflected in Pallasvuo’s satirical character sketches, introspective monologues, and scribbly, self-effacing drawings. In spring 2021, Chicago-based indie comics outlet Perfectly Acceptable Press published an anthology of Avocado Ibuprofen comics, which I’ve returned to often––though not as often as I open the account on my phone. Some days as I scroll through the landscape that Avocado Ibuprofen documents, I feel like Pallasvuo has found the most viable art format for the moment, a purposefully ephemeral, ruthlessly self-critical vehicle for inhabiting the feed and examining it at the same time. It’s a world in which “all old forms of culture had been disrupted and demonetized to hell” (as one 2021 strip puts it), and there’s no “appealing medium” left within the exhausted and discredited apparatus of the contemporary art system.

Courtesy Jaakko Pallasvuo.

Among the artists who came of age on Tumblr and collectively generated the post-internet moment a decade ago, Pallasvuo has remained uniquely faithful to the aspirations of the movement’s early phase—though I doubt they would characterize their recent work in those terms. Nevertheless, there was a utopian current within the post-internet milieu: some artists saw potential in treating art like memes, bypassing markets and institutions in order to engage directly with an online audience. Pallasvuo’s insight was that memes are, in effect, a species of comics. Though they initially won notoriety for their offbeat videos, illustrations, and Tumblr presence, and have continued to work in various media (including installation, performance, and experimental film), Pallasvuo has become most associated with the Avocado Ibuprofen comics they started making in 2018—and for good reason. With a low-tech MS Paint aesthetic and a wry, doubt-ridden narrative style, Pallasvuo has perfected a quasi-autobiographical, essayistic criticism of the art world that is also a meta-discourse on the dynamics of platform capitalism and the attention economy.

In their Avocado Ibuprofen persona as an alienated, perpetually depressed outsider, Pallasvuo—who is Finnish and based in Helsinki—purveys witty, epigrammatic insight into the travails of the contemporary artist. Terminally online and broke, today’s contemporary artist is beset on one side by the plutocratic decadence, hypocritical posturing, and bureaucratic moralizing of the blue-chip art economy, and pressured on the other side by the imperative to perform oneself online: to be visible, creating free content for social platforms that offer only attention as compensation.

In other words, Avocado Ibuprofen illustrates how the dream of post-internet art soured as online culture mutated, from the naïve tech-positivity of the Obama years to the blackpilled, post-Trump dystopia of 2022. The once-hopeful vision of an artist who creates and shares free culture for an online audience—and maybe somehow makes a living in the process—has been usurped by territorial competition among podcasters, Youtubers, and influencers. Pallasvuo has regularly tackled the blurred roles of artist and influencer. In one comic from May 2021, quasi-Expressionist characters stride around looking furious and worried, emanating dense thought-bubbles of prose like anxious steam: “I don’t think this division between ‘content producers’ and ‘artists’ will last,” they fume. “Art will just become more attention-deprived and drama-obsessed, more surface driven, faster…and online content will continue to become more neurotic, academic, angry, and serious.”

Courtesy Jaakko Pallasvuo.

The rise of NFTs has also reversed utopian expectations: instead of digital art free of commodity status, we get financial instruments free of artistic quality—with a heinous environmental impact to boot. In one of Pallasvuo’s comics, the “nothingness” of crypto is depicted with blank squares and black holes while a narrator (in Pallasvuo’s trademark typewriter font) rants apocalyptically about the spiritual dimensions of virtual wealth, next to collaged Jpegs of angels: “I wanted art that was superior to economy, unrealistic, uncompromised, abundant, but not wasteful.” And then, crossed out: “What a surprise that the dream didn’t come true…”

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic intensified Pallasvuo’s focus on making comics while enhancing Avocado Ibuprofen’s already dystopian mood. As opportunities for travel and exhibition of gallery work dried up and artists (especially those like Pallasvuo, who reside outside of major art centers) grew more socially isolated, cut off from the party circuit, the world of Avocado Ibuprofen grew more speculative, imagining sci-fi scenarios in which artists are absorbed into a cyborg neural net, or reduced to making installations of debris for no one amid post-apocalyptic social collapse. And yet, Pallasvuo’s morosely funny visions and fixation on failure, withdrawal, and retreat haven’t alienated the audience—on the contrary, they have touched a nerve. Pallasvuo now has a large fanbase (84.7k Instagram followers and growing) who find the comics painfully relatable and say so in their comments and shares.

The casual intimacy of the Instagram-comic format also enables an unexpected freedom to ruminate on ultimate matters like Beauty, Truth, and Meaning with a wide-eyed sincerity rarely tolerated in more official formats. In these moments, Avocado Ibuprofen’s Instagram account feels like it’s whispering secret hopes and feelings that many artists share but can’t articulate in the approved language of funding applications or artist statements. In a comic from January 2021, Pallasvuo muses in a zine-like cut-and-paste: “one wanted to see something really beautiful. or maybe make something that could be beautiful. one was a stupid loser.”

Courtesy Jaakko Pallasvuo.

Though Pallasvuo has insisted that they aren’t a big fan of Instagram as a platform and mainly use it for its convenient access to attention, Avocado Ibuprofen is remarkably effective at exploiting the app’s interface. The slideshow format, for example, ensures that Pallasvuo’s comics are read not as strips with a flow between panels, but as a series of single images encountered in sequence. Even when a given comic is a multi-panel narrative or mini-essay, individual panels tend to look self-contained and shareable. This effect is partly achieved through Pallasvuo’s deft pastiche of text with doodly characters, grainy film stills, art-historical miscellany, bits from classic comics (The Far Side, Garfield, The Simpsons, Looney Tunes, Winsor McKay), fashion photography, and the occasional burst of abstraction. The comics also sit naturally as single posts within the stream of other content, little hits of critical energy or contemplative enclaves carved out of the rest of one’s feed. They arrive freighted with the affirming presence of other readers who have already commented (however predictably) with fire emojis, hearts, and remarks about how Pallasvuo has “nailed it,” “done it again,” etc.

In other words, Avocado Ibuprofen feels digitally native in a way that even most other webcomics don’t. Consequently, the print version of Avocado Ibuprofen, released last year, feels notably different than Pallasvuo’s previous graphic novels, Retreat (2018), Easy Rider (2017), and Pure Shores (2015). All of those books were full-length narrative comics—very good ones—which also featured queer artists and intellectuals, feckless and adrift whether at art parties or trying to survive the apocalypse—whereas Avocado Ibuprofen is built for Instagram. It could almost be considered a durational artwork, a social media performance, or a work of experimental criticism as much as a “comic,” per se. In that sense, the Avocado Ibuprofen book functions as persistent documentation of an art project that is otherwise contingent on a corporate social media platform that could delete Pallasvuo’s account, change its interface, or shut down altogether at any time.

Avocado Ibuprofen by Jaakko Pallasvuo. Published by Perfectly Acceptable Press. Photo credit: Exile Books.

In the introduction to the book, Pallasvuo is almost apologetic about its existence: “what is the point of printing pixels on dead trees?” Pallasvuo explains that they had initially wanted to write a different book but felt too “burned out and disappointed.” However, “making the comics still felt necessary and possible,” and so the material came into being without having any overarching plan—and, indeed, the strips anthologized in the book aren’t presented in chronological order, which produces a different experience than scrolling through the archived posts online. Imagining a possible future utility for the publication, Pallasvuo writes: “it’s 100 years from now and I’m dead, we’re all dead, and you want to take a peek at how people lived ‘back then’ or something?”

That’s certainly an adequate justification for publishing a book, but the persistent impulse to print things on paper and bind them in a codex format also offers an implicit indictment of our platform-based attention economy, which has only accelerated the previously existing inequality of the cultural field. Free culture is nice for consumers and even better for platforms, but terrible for artists—just ask any recording artist how much money they get from their Spotify streams. Aside from setting up a Patreon and starting a podcast, which more than a few artists of the post-internet cohort have done—see Artie Vierkant’s co-hosting duties on Death Panel, Joshua Citarella’s podcast and Twitch stream, and of course Brad Troemel’s whole thing—or getting in on the NFT grift, artists who make and share work online still have to resort to old media (books, in Pallasvuo’s case) in order to see some income and accrue tangible validation.

Courtesy Jaakko Pallasvuo,

Pallasvuo has long been critical of the hamster-wheel of an attention economy that promises (but rarely delivers) material rewards down the line. In 2015, after acquiring some notoriety through their Tumblr account (dawsonscreek-info) and participating in a handful of high-profile exhibitions, Pallasvuo published a manifesto-esque essay in Spike Art magazine. In it, they pledged to “cease uploading”:

The confusion had fully set in. To be an artist was to command attention. Attention could be quantified in likes, reblogs, faves and retweets. Somehow, murkily, these would translate into shows, which would perhaps, down the road, translate into financial resources. These resources could be used to produce more content, pay ever-increasing rents, produce more shows, upload more installation shots. What did a lack of attention represent in this pattern? Invisibility was death…I’m more of a columnist than a prophet. Is ‘criticality’ my gimmick? Is bitterness? Forming opinions for a living is the fast lane to feeling insubstantial. I’ve began my retreat.

Pallasvuo made good on the promise to delete their Tumblr, though they did of course return to Instagram, operating a fairly normal personal account (everyday snapshots, notices of exhibitions, images of their own work and that of other artists) for several years before they began posting comics in 2018.

Despite their return to an uploading-focused career, the idea of retreat and invisibility has remained central to their work—it might even be the philosophical core of Avocado Ibuprofen. One of the most frequently recurring themes in the comics is the fantasy of living without mediation, whether by choice (getting offline) or by circumstance (social collapse). “I made some art and told no one about it,” they write in one post, which concludes with an image of rocks sitting in a space, empty except for a few rectangles that could be face-down paper or canvases. The essential conflict Pallasvuo illustrates is between private experience––that is, life lived for its own value––and art, which is necessarily public, which must be shared to have meaning, and which requires a certain degree of exploitation in order to exist: of the self, of others’ experiences and labor, of the resources required to create. An eternal question: “to be in the moment or to write about the moment,” as a comic from May 2021 asks.

Despite the frequently autofictional character of their comics, Pallasvuo has made some interesting decisions to reduce their authorial signature: no name appears on the main page of the Avocado Ibuprofen Instagram account or on the cover of the book, though “Jaakko Pallasvuo” does appear on the back. The cover art is also not by Pallasvuo themself, but licensed from queer artist/illustrator Mel Odom. It’s easy to imagine that most readers of Avocado Ibuprofen are unaware of Pallasvuo’s prolific output as an artist outside of these comics.

Courtesy Jaakko Pallasvuo.

Related to these notions of mediation and visibility is the idea that art is always, to some degree, connected to questions of pleasure, beauty, glamor, and taste—that it is inherently selfish, frivolous, and wasteful—and yet indispensable. Pallasvuo’s play with these issues leads to many amusing parodies of artistic “types,” from obliviously privileged decorative painters to well-meaning but ambitious curators caught up in the managerial bureaucracy of “care and access and ethics or whatever.” In one comic, the “official artist” wears a monkish black robe and explains that they wanted to make the world a better place: “Could filling in this excel sheet become the revolution?” Pallasvuo’s satires, however trenchant, tend to be more sympathetic than spiteful.

However, some of the most intriguing portrayals in Avocado Ibuprofen are of characters who have embraced mediocrity, liberating themselves from the inherently violent quest for attention and validation. One strip from September 22, 2020 paints an almost dreamlike picture of ordinary contentment. Long-haired and mustachioed characters smoke and smile, do yoga and drive sports cars, as they share unremarkable art among themselves: “They drank tea and wore cute socks and talked about their projects. They were smiling and dogs were licking the backs of their hands.” Pallasvuo presents these figures with a complex mix of contempt, empathy, and even longing. Are they silly failures, or are they #blessed? “They wouldn’t write the great songs,” Pallasvuo writes, “but they could live lives that songs could only describe.”

Courtesy Jaakko Pallasvuo.

In the midst of this ongoing, interminable pandemic, facing the eventual prospect of climate disaster and the suddenly immediate prospect of global war and social collapse, Pallasvuo’s pastiche of antique and sci-fi aesthetics reminds us that the life of art is longer and stranger than we can imagine: we never know what kind of culture will live on or what future generations will take from it. At the same time, their texts, intimate yet incisive and discerning, name a need for meaning and pleasure in art that extends far beyond the hype cycle of the art market or the critical priorities of curatorial discourse. What stands out across all the comics is Pallasvuo’s capacity for imagining how art might exist outside of its current definitions and contexts, the ways that it’s currently valued and circulated.

In my favourite strip in the book (and maybe of the project to date), a human-headed snake confronts a butterfly: “So because you failed to become a GREAT artist you turned to circulating depression on Instagram with your failcomics, huh?” In the next panel, the smiling butterfly retorts, “Psych! I actually believed in art the whole time!”

 

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